In the early to mid-2000’s a cycle of extreme horror cinema was being generated as part of the New French Extremity, a trend in French cinema arguably rooted in the hardcore rape-revenge-killing-spree film Baise-Moi (Virginie Despentes, Coralie) in 2000 (though 1998’s lesser-known Sombre [Philippe Grandrieux] was also an important precursor).
Alexandre Aja’s Haute Tension in 2003 (released in the US in 2005) was the first of these films to penetrated the American marketplace and generate mainstream success, comparable to the success of the American-made Hostel, which would be released one year later in the US in 2006. Audiences were then assaulted by both Inside (Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo) and Frontière(s) (Xavier Gens) in 2007, and Martyrs (Pascal Laugher) stunned viewers in 2008.
This is just a sampling of French filmmakers and films, which include directors like Gaspar Noe, Bertrand Bonello, and Claire Denis, who were pushing boundaries to put France on the map as a place where genre was as brutal as it gets.
But it was Aja who most successfully captured Hollywood’s imagination, Gens being a close second. The international success of Haute Tension opened the gates to Hollywood for Aja, and he helmed American genre titles like The Hills Have Eyes remake, Mirrors, and Piranha 3D. He also produced and was one of the writers on the critically acclaimed remake of Maniac, an art-horror retelling of the notorious 1980 Joe Spinell grindhouse classic.
Aja’s latest, an adaptation of author Joe Hill’s 2010 darkly fantastical genre-hybrid novel Horns, recently screened at the 2014 Fantastic Fest and is currently available on VOD. Starring Daniel Radcliffe (the Harry Potter series, The Woman in Black), Juno Temple (Maleficent, Killer Joe), and Heather Graham (Boogie Nights, The Hangover Part III), Horns tells the story of a man accused of the brutal murder of his ex-girlfriend who wakes up one day to find himself with a set of horns and infernal new powers.
It is a departure from the violence which has been a signature of Aja’s films but still confronts the personal fears that drew the director to the genre in the first place. We were lucky enough to catch up with him at Fantastic Fest to chat about Horns and what horror means to him and his home country.
DREAD CENTRAL: How did Horns get to your door?
Alexandre Aja: In the non-extreme way, just by an email. It came to me through my agent, who knew my taste; he sent me the galleys to this book: “It might interest you.” That was right before the book was published. I started reading it, I was finishing Piranha, and I have to say that right from the first chapter, I kind of felt that I was reading a book that I could have been writing. It was so personal on so many levels. It was just like the exact mix of dark humor and fantasy and the crime-mystery and love story, the emotional twists—It had all the things that interest me the most usually.
DREAD CENTRAL: Is that “interesting” in a general way or a specific way?
AA: In a more personal way. Somehow, I like stories where you have people facing extreme situations. Reading the book, I was completely in tune with, ‘What if the girl that I loved broke up with me, and a few hours later she’s found raped and killed, and everyone is accusing me? And there is no way for me to find out who the killer is, and I don’t want to keep going with this life. And then I wake up with horns on my head and the power of The Devil to find out who killed her.’ It was such a great starting point for a spiritual fable, I knew I had to make this movie. It was one of the most obvious choices. I would say that I had one experience similar to that before when right after The Hills Have Eyes I was supposed to make Black Hole, the Charles Burns [graphic novel], and I had the same feeling, and unfortunately the movie didn’t happen; it still hasn’t happened. This one I knew I had to fight to make it real.
DREAD CENTRAL: What were the challenges of trying to make it real? The tone seems to be different from the work you’ve done before.
AA: One of the challenges in the adaptation was to preserve what was the DNA of the book, which was this crazy supernatural fable about first love and about the loss of first love and revenge. But at the same time also to preserve the mix of genres. We are working now in a time where studio marketing is trying to put you in boxes, tries to make you make a horror movie that’s just a horror movie, to do a comedy that’s just a comedy. Horns was everything at once, and I wanted to preserve this unique multi-genre approach. That was a very, very important element for me. That was the first biggest challenge. Then the other challenge is like, when you love a novel so much, how can you adapt in two hours when you need at least six hours to do it? We had to find a solution and shortcuts. The third challenge was of course to make the experience a full immersion, that’s what I like about movies, and not fall into something where the horns take you out of the experience. The book has a lot of extreme elements. The horns were more like Halloween props, pointy and shiny, and at one point he’s wearing a blue dress, which is funny, but it has a lot of elements that would take you out of the movie.
DREAD CENTRAL: Did you work a lot with Joe Hill?
AA: Yeah, Joe was really involved. I wanted him to be involved because I wanted him to be proud of the movie; I wanted the movie to be so close to my reading of the book. He was there for us whenever we needed him. He read the first few drafts; he came on the set. He was always very present to help me defend, to keep the cut we have now. When you make a movie like this, people are apt to say, ‘The movie will better if…You should lose all the dark comedy. You should lose all the flashbacks.’ To have Joe by my side fighting with me and Daniel [Radcliffe] was an amazing way to protect the creative vision.
DREAD CENTRAL: So were those elements of the film the producers were going to remove?
AA: Producers, distributors—It’s a lot of money. Making movies is very expensive. It’s a big movie. There’s a lot of questions—Should we have more gore? Should we cut the gore? Should we cut the comedy? At the end of the day, we all knew we wanted to keep the spirit of the movie. I would say it’s a double thing. I had the chance to make the movie in the more independent way that I used to work before; I think the studio system would have killed the project. But then of course they were creating the questions—and it’s the audience that really gave us the right. As soon as we started doing test previews, we saw that people were responding in a very, very strong way exactly to what we were expecting them to respond to, which is this very unique, original mix of genre. And they went for it.
DREAD CENTRAL: What is your interest in very extreme situations in cinema?
AA: I really like movies when they help you reflect about your darker side. What I like in a movie like Maniac is the whole experience of feeling at one point of being abandoned, of not being loved, of not being desired, of just ending up without someone to take care of you. So we all understand somehow the character of Maniac in some more extreme way, but it’s still a side of ourselves we all can understand. It’s a very interesting element in genre in general to make you reflect on aspects of your personality that usually you don’t want to face or confront and to try to, not accept, but to deal with it in a more interesting way.
DREAD CENTRAL: How old were you when you realized this was an aspect of your personality and the kind of art you’d be creating?
AA: I was really scared as a kid. I saw a few horror movies very early on that traumatized me. I had quite a strong imagination, and I had night terrors, and a lot of things were happening, and I found the best way of dealing with fear was sharing my fear with other people. Telling a story to my friends at school and creating the fear in them was almost like spreading the virus and was also making me less anxious about my own fear. That came quite early on. Then I realized the effect you have when you tell a story, how you create that immersion, where people can just, like, project themselves. So it was pretty early on, I guess.
DREAD CENTRAL: What were the original horror films that traumatized you?
AA: The first one was the last scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark. I was three or four and the face melting—I mean, I was not supposed to see that movie, of course— and that was really traumatizing, that was something that stayed with me for a long time. Then, a few years after that I rented by accident in France—France is a very strange country, where some kind of thing like that can happen—I ended up renting The Shining. I started watching The Shining, and I couldn’t even make the step to the TV to stop it. I was so hypnotized, so paralyzed by the fear—every shot, every frame of that movie. So that was when the first two really strong experiences were.
Then, when I was 10, A Nightmare on Elm Street was the one that really made me most scared.
DREAD CENTRAL: Are you looking to continue working in the genre, to explore these emotions?
AA: I love the genre because of the ability to explore all the darkness. I’m working right now on another movie called The Ninth Life of Louis Drax. It explores all the secrets that the human mind can hide, very dark side as well. Also I’m developing some more straightforward genre stories. I’m not trying to go away from the genre. I’m trying to basically just keep finding stories that give me the opportunity to do new things that are different from everything I did before.
I’m also fascinated by the genre because you have to reinvent it every time—because people have expectations, and you have to play with those expectations and reinvent the language that goes with it all. I think it is a very stimulating genre. It needs by its own definition to always be recreated because fear only comes from the unknown and not what you already know.
AA: From my movies or movies that I’ve seen?
DREAD CENTRAL: From movies that you’ve seen.
AA: I just saw a couple of weeks ago the film Anemone. I loved it; it was one of the most interesting films that I saw recently.
I remember watching The Descent in the movie theater and entering the room and seeing that someone puked right before, and it was just the best sight ever—that I was about to see something very strong, and it was beyond my expectation.
I still like very old school [films]; I love classics. I’m such a huge fan of The Shining and The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, Texas Chain Saw Massacre (the original), and Deliverance… Movies that say so much about human nature and who we are. That’s what I am looking for usually.
DREAD CENTRAL: What is it about human nature that you see? There’s a darkness in yourself that you’ve talked about, but not about what’s out there in the world.
AA: What scares me the most is actually the fear itself. The fear that paralyzes you and [you're] unable to react in a good way, that makes you do crazy things. I think that somehow everything I’m trying to do is always about overcoming the fear and trying to find ways for the characters to overcome that fear. That is what is interesting. It’s not about creating the fear just for the fear. It’s more about the effect of that fear on people.
DREAD CENTRAL: So it’s a very personal exploration then?
AA: There is definitely a personal exploration of that darkness, that just by facing it, you can overcome it.
DREAD CENTRAL: Switching gears a bit, how was it working with Daniel Radcliffe in Horns?
AA: I would make a movie with him tomorrow; I would cast him in any movie. He has been maybe my best experience so far with an actor. He’s such a talented guy; he has an amazing skill. I think people who only know him from Harry Potter, when watching Horns, will realize that Harry Potter was only the beginning of something. He has so much more to offer.
DREAD CENTRAL: How is the horror genre seen in France?
AA: It was non-existent before High Tension, and then High Tension kind of opened a little front where a few movies got made like Martyrs or Inside. Unfortunately, the French audiences never really responded to those movies. They were respected, but they were not box office successes. So we never managed to do what Spain managed to create, which is a whole genre, where movies like REC or The Orphanage can be giant successes, award-winning movies, but also in Spanish. So, unfortunately, it’s dying.
DREAD CENTRAL: Does that say something about the culture?
AA: Yeah, somehow. The French refuse to believe, or at least with French actors. It’s a weird thing. It’s very hard to explain. Horror movies are very popular, but not with French actors. It’s a weird thing.
Directed by Alexandre Aja from Keith Bunin’s script, Horns stars Daniel Radcliffe, Max Minghella, Juno Temple, Joe Anderson, Heather Graham, Kelli Garner, and James Remar. Look for it in theaters on October 31st in both the US and the UK.
Horns, a supernatural thriller driven by fantasy, mystery, and romance, follows Ig Perrish (Radcliffe), the number one suspect for the violent rape and murder of his girlfriend, Merrin (Temple). Hungover from a night of hard drinking, Ig awakens one morning to find horns starting to grow from his own head and soon realizes their power drives people to confess their sins and give in to their most selfish and unspeakable impulses – an effective tool in his quest to discover the true circumstances of his late girlfriend’s tragedy and for exacting revenge on her killer.
This rock and roll infused dark fantasy explores why bad things happen to good people and what the loss of true love can do to a man. The widely acclaimed book was on the New York Times bestseller list for six weeks and has become an international bestseller as well.